img(height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="")

Q&A: Justin Scully on Fountains Abbey flood mitigation scheme

Jan-Carlos Kucharek

Fountains Abbey & Studley Royal Water Garden is about to begin a £2.5 million natural flood mitigation project stretching all the way to Ripon. Justin Scully, general manager at Fountains Abbey, talks about a new landscape of dams and ponds

Studley Royal Water Gardens. National Trust Images/Chris Lacey
Studley Royal Water Gardens. National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

How bad has flooding been in the Skell valley to need a scheme on this scale?

This was both a 12th and 18th century landscape and the river has been heavily engineered since the monastery was founded in 1132. We’re seeing more flood events – in 2007 the abbey ended up 2m deep in water. The monastery was sited in the valley because of the productive use it made of the water source, so has been exposed to flooding since its founding. But with its foundations submerged three times in the last five years due to climate change, it constantly needs more repairs.

What was the damage? How did you deal with it?

We haven’t needed structural interventions yet but it’s needed cost and time to let the land dry out and remove the sediment deposited all over the estate.

Will nature-based solutions like soil consolidation through planting and balancing ponds be enough?

A lot of this is relatively new, but we’ve been learning from other projects. We looked at the ‘Slowing the Flow’ project in Pickering in North Yorkshire and the Hebden Bridge Flood Alleviation Scheme and their big trials of natural flood management. Simple interventions like natural wood dams have helped retain soil in situ and slow the river down. It’s not just about a four-year lottery funded project (working with the ­Environment Agency) but long-term benefits of maintaining these soft interventions into the future.

You are using local land and compensating farmers. How does that work?

It’s about 30ha spaced out across the 20km stretch of river in the valley, involving 14 farmers. Compensation is more about long term maintenance; they will make capital improvements to their land on our behalf but it all ties into the future of land management post-Brexit and government farm subsidies. We’re trialling how to work with farmers and pay for outcomes; if, say, we’re asking for more trees. We want to incentivise them to maintain them beyond the life of the project as part of the new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS).

How will these flood mitigation measures improve public access?

We can work with local businesses and landowners to encourage access to less famous local sites which could form a matrix of attractions for the 600,000 visitors that come to us – for example 19th century Eavestone lake or a sulphur spring that used to be piped to Ripon. 

Is this the way forward for the National Trust?

Other parts of the Trust are working nationally on natural flood management principles. What this offers is a great snapshot of approaches we’re adopting across the trust’s estate in a tight geographical area.